In August last year, Fairfax announced it was rolling out a new, centralised publishing system that would allow it to operate its regional empire more cheaply and efficiently.

Fairfax’s release, which said it was building a “modern, stronger” regional and suburban newspaper network, received little attention at the time. But by October, when the job loss announcements started, the full impact of the model became apparent.

In a bid to shore up its balance sheet, Fairfax was cutting deep into what many journalists consider core newsroom functions. While the company initially said the cuts would focus on back-of-house, leaving more journalists than ever in the newsroom, many countered that the removal of roles like subeditors, photographers and editors would leave journalists scrambling to maintain quality.

Ignoring its critics, Fairfax continued to reduce headcount through much of 2014 and early 2015. It shows little sign of slowing down. In the 2014-15 financial year, more than 100 editorial redundancies have been reported in Fairfax’s Australian Community Media business.

These include, in October 2014, at least 13 editorial redundancies in the NSW Riverina papers. In March this year, another 62 editorial redundancies were announced in regional Victoria — the deepest cuts yet, which sliced some newsrooms in half. By May this year, another 34 editorial redundancies followed in south-east New South Wales. Storied titles like The Border Mail, The Courier (in Ballarat) and the Illawarra Mercury lost scores of reporters, editors and photographers. Add those up, and 109 journalists have been let go or are about to be.

The cuts continue. In the first three weeks of the 2015-16 financial year, Fairfax has announced 22 editorial redundancies in regional titles in South Australia, and another 37 editorial redundancies in suburban and regional titles operating out of Sydney, making a total of 59 expected editorial redundancies.

It’s now nearly a year into what was described as an 18-month process of reform across the Australian Community Media network. Tasmania and the rest of New South Wales are bracing for their restructuring announcements.

For a long time, the Australian media believed it was largely immune to the traumatic downsizing of the print press taking place in other parts of the world. While redundancy rounds were common from 2008, it took the massive cuts in 2012 to shake the media out of a sense that it had managed to avoid the worst. More than 1800 journalists took redundancy from Fairfax that year. News Corp reduced its journalistic head count by 1000 positions over the same period. The majority of the cuts came from metropolitan newspapers, with regional papers largely shielded.

La Trobe University journalism academic Dr Lawrie Zion heads the New Beats project, which since 2012 has been tracking the post-redundancy careers of Australian journalists. He says regional newsrooms were protected for a long time by the fact that their audience still largely reads the paper in print form, unlike the metropolitan papers, most of whom have far more online than print readers. “Regional papers remained relatively successful,” he told Crikey. “They had a lot of display and classified advertising, and their communities weren’t going online for the product to the same extent. Their importance to regional communities remained high.”

But the cost-cutting has come to regional Australia. And it’s what protected regional papers for so long — their readers’ heavy reliance on them for local news given a lack of alternatives — that now makes the regional cuts so costly.

“In the broad scheme of things, it’s 10 jobs here, 12 jobs here … it’s not huge numbers,” Zion said. “But the local impact is very, very high.”

Zion and his collaborating academics are about to embark on a new section of New Beats, which will investigate “the extent and impact of journalism job losses in regional Australia”. “It’s clear this is becoming a much more important part of the picture than it seemed at first,” Zion said.

Speaking anecdotally, he says there doesn’t appear to be the same post-journalism employment options for regional journalists as there are in the cities. “It appears that what happens more often is people break apart from the media entirely,” Zion said, instead of going into related roles like public relations as often happens in the cities.

It’s been estimated that since 2012, 20% of journalists in the print media industry have been made redundant.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.